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Does driverless really mean driverless?

Does driverless really mean driverless?


Will we ever get to the stage where we can sit back in our cars, put our feet up, open up the laptop and catch up with news, work or friends as we whizz along at 60 mph without having to even look out of the windscreen?

Does Driverless Really Mean Driverless?

Not just yet, but it's getting closer every day; here are the 5 stages to driverless cars:

  • Level 1 Driver Assistance - already here, with Automatic Emergency Braking, Lane Assist etc
  • Level 2 Partial Automation - already in some cars, but not yet legal to use, for example, self-steering
  • Level 3 Conditional Automation - computers & sensors take over monitoring and drive steps in only in an emergency
  • Level 4 High Automation - at this stage the vehicle takes complete control to avoid an emergency
  • Level 5 Full Autonomy - the car monitors and controls EVERY system in the vehicle with no driver input

Is it time to sit back and enjoy the ride?

Will we ever get to the stage where we can sit back in our cars, put our feet up, open up the laptop and catch up with news, work or friends as we whizz along at 60 mph without having to even look out of the windscreen?

In the short term, most definitely not; but, in the longer term, most certainly.

Woman reading a book while car drives itselfAutonomous cars which guide and control themselves are already much closer than many of us realise and quite a bit of the technology needed for them to work is in our cars today. If your vehicle has Autonomous Emergency Braking or self-parking, where it scans for a suitable sized spot and steers itself in while all you do is work the pedals, or a lane departure warning system, then you’re already using the basic technology of a driverless car.

We’re some way yet from the point where the human hands over complete control, because there are three big dots which need to be joined up first – technology, legislation, insurance - but they’re well on the way to being joined. There’s a fourth which may take a little more effort and time and that is consumer trust.

The technology is the most fundamental hurdle, but some car companies and tech giants, such as Google, are confident that they’ve already cracked it and have vehicles which will soon be safe to drive themselves on the public roads.

Jaguar and Waymo (a Google offshoot) have already announced that later this year they’ll begin trials of a self-driving I-PACE, Jaguar’s all-electric SUV. They plan to have the first on Waymo’s fleet by 2020 and then add another 20,000 in the first two years. 

Others will not be far behind. Ford, for example, says that by 2021 it will have a car which can drive itself, monitor itself and if there’s some kind of emergency where a crash is likely, take steps to avoid it. This won’t cover all the car’s systems and will rely on some human intervention and so does not count as full autonomy.

What's the point of driverless cars?

Well, the whole point of driverless cars is to get to the ‘zero/zero’ situation where we use vehicles which cause zero pollution at point of use (electric cars) and zero accidents because the technology will be safer than humans.

True, there have been well-documented failures and fatalities during early testing of autonomous cars, but it must be said that these amount to a tiny handful compared to the death toll caused each year by incompetent human drivers. Last year in the UK alone around 26,000 people were killed or seriously injured on the roads with 1.25 million globally. In more than 90% of those cases human error was found to be the cause.

Autonomous driving button lit in green with finger about to press itBear in mind that anyone who flies in a jet airliner puts their trust in a largely self-controlling machine and the aviation industry’s safety record is exceptional.

So, we already have some of the technology needed for autonomous driving and there are cars on the market today which have a lot more built into them, but which is not yet legal to use.

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How far away are we from driverless cars?

There are five levels in the path between technology and human input.

Level 1 Driver Assistance

Fairly common in many cars we drive now. It can do things like AEB (the emergency braking it activates if it detects an impact situation developing, for example), but the human does the steering and pedals, monitors and checks everything and decides what to do in an emergency.

Level 2 Partial Automation

 Also in some cars today, but not yet legal to use. So, for example, the car can steer itself to some extent to keep in lane (the Audi A8 has this), but the driver must have full control at all times; is responsible for keeping a constant eye on things and is the fall-back if anything does go wrong.

Level 3 Conditional Automation

Like level 2, but with the computers and sensors doing the monitoring and the human driver only stepping in to take control in emergencies.

Level 4 High Automation

Goes a stage further and will even take complete control to avoid a crash, so the human driver doesn’t actually need to do anything.

Level 5 Full Autonomy

Like Level 4, but at Level 5 the car monitors and controls every system in the vehicle.

1, 2 and 3 are fairly easy to achieve and 4 isn’t far behind. That’s the level Ford says it will have by 2021. Level 5 may take a while longer.

Man reading a newspaper behind the wheel of a driverless carThe situation is fast developing, but legislators and the insurance industry are getting fully behind it. For the insurers there will be a seismic change in the way they assess motoring risk. Cars will generate vastly more data than now, which can be downloaded and assessed to apportion blame more accurately and allow the introduction of individual driver profiles.

The possibilities for safety are exciting. To work fully, cars need to use cloud-based systems to ‘talk’ to each other. In what the trade calls ‘over-the-horizon’ communication, a car should be able to warn others around it that, for example, its traction control or electronic stability control has just been triggered, suggesting a slippery road.

If the brakes unexpectedly come on hard, there may be a tailback just around the corner or a slow vehicle and so on. They will be able to pick up signals from an emergency vehicle, such as an ambulance which is fast approaching, so even if the driver can’t see or hear it the car will know and prepare to slow down or move over.

Road signs and even traffic lights will communicate with vehicles, so they approach a junction, roundabout or set of lights at the right speed and can enter the flow of traffic without having to stop.

Behind the wheel of an autonomous Land RoverIt will also redefine personal mobility. People who are at the moment prevented from driving, those too ill, too young or who have lost their licence will have independent transport with full autonomy.

This will be the biggest revolution in transport since the arrival of the motor car and it has huge consequences for the environment and wider society. Self-driving cars are no longer science fiction; the technology is already a reality and now just one or two short steps from being the dominant form of personal mobility.

Exciting times.

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